Canine Case Files: Paco – “Cujo” on the Leash

The second of Paco’s three-part case story outlines our program to change his leash walking behaviors.  I can only conjecture what his prior experiences were before landing in my house.  He had engaged in at least one altercation, because there was a small crescent-shaped hunk missing from one ear.  Many dogs are friendly towards other dogs when off leash.  The leash changes the dynamic, and therefore, behaviors. 

We had not embarked upon too many walks before Paco’s “offense as defense” behavior reared its intense head.  The presence of an oncoming dog from 10 houses away set him off!  It was an ugly display and difficult to redirect him.  We worked on general leash walking skills.  I had already invested lots of training time in teaching him to “sit and wait” on cue.  Because these responses were reliable in many situations, I could use them in a behavior change program. 

Threshold Distance

To change Paco’s conditioned emotional response to the approach of other dogs and, subsequently, his behavior, we had to find a starting point.  He had a low threshold: the distance where he COULD remain calm was far.  I must be on the lookout, too, so I promptly intervened.  The first task was to find a distance where Paco could engage in a desirable behavior that I reinforced with food.  (More on that coming up….)

Maintaining a distance where Paco felt safe meant changing direction or turning up a side street for as many paces as we needed.  Here is where “sit and wait” cues entered the program.  These words were relevant to Paco, so when he responded correctly instead of fixating on the approaching dog, I reinforced his attention to me.   If this was not possible at that distance, I took steps to increase the distance. 

Mentally noting that threshold, I used the same distance as a gauge for the next time out.  After at least three successful rounds at that distance, I decreased it.  The approaching dog was gradually closer to us.  I always asked Paco to “sit and wait”, so he learned what to expect.   

Prepare for Training Walks

To change Paco’s “Cujo act”, every walk was training time.  Paco was outfitted with a harness and a 6’ leash.  I was outfitted with high value food to reinforce desirable behaviors, a large dose of patience, and a plan.  The value of the food matters!!!  The treats that work in your kitchen are unlikely to have the same impact in a high arousal situation.  Human food works best:  small morsels of chicken, baked liverwurst, cheese, hot dogs, steak.  Preferably a “variety mix”. 

The plan included a route, where I knew I had small “escape hatches”.  (I was not above walking a short distance into a neighbor’s driveway.)   Just as dogs have distance thresholds, they also have duration thresholds.  Shorter training walks are more productive than long walks.  If our walks were part training and part allowing Paco to “go off” at approaching dogs, we would not have solved our problem.  He would continue to practice established, undesirable behaviors.

Program Progression

We gradually closed the distance from the oncoming dog with the “sit and wait” cue.  Paco learned that a dog could walk by him, and there would be no interaction.  He learned that looking at me instead paid off in something yummy.

The next phase was to continue walking as the oncoming dog approached.  We increased the distance again as Paco could succeed.  Food reinforcement must continue if these good behavior changes are going to stick.  Over time, as Paco was successful, we decreased the distance from the oncoming dog.  We gradually decreased the food reinforcements, too.  I incorporated several phrases to help Paco remain mentally connected to me and provide directives.  (“Keep walking”, “Walk on by”, and for a while “No rubbernecking”)

We achieved our goal of walking past an oncoming dog, with Paco showing only a mild interest.  It took us about 8 months.  Paco’s reactions were established behaviors.  He was 5 years old when I adopted him.  Long-standing habits take longer to change.  The most important factor in our success was working within Paco’s thresholds.  I progressed with this program at Paco’s pace.  We set up for success every day, and he told me when we walked too close, too soon.


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2020 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC